Who Bombed the Vatican? the Argentinean Connection

By Mcgoldrick, Patricia M. | The Catholic Historical Review, Autumn 2016 | Go to article overview

Who Bombed the Vatican? the Argentinean Connection


Mcgoldrick, Patricia M., The Catholic Historical Review


At 8:10 pm on the evening of November 5, 1943, a small, unidentified, low-flying aircraft, which had circled the area for some time beforehand, dropped five bombs on the 110-acre territory of Vatican City and disappeared into the night. At the same moment a squadron of Allied aircraft, which earlier had taken part in an extensive bombing raid on the Adriatic coast of Italy between Ancona and Pescara, was passing over Rome and returning to its airbase in North Africa.1

Sir D'Arcy Osborne, the British minister to the Holy See who had taken refuge in the neutral territory of Vatican City when Italy declared war on England (see figure 1), was in the Santa Marta building next to the Vatican City wall and noted the sound of overhead aircraft. "I said that most of them were Allied," he recorded. But Major Sam Derry, an escaped British prisoner of war who was with him at the time, said: "'You hear that one now. That is German.' Whereupon there was the sound of bombs very near and the doors and the windows, and the whole building shook."2

Monsignor Dominico Tardini, secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs, was in a corridor on the top floor of the four-storied Governorate Palace, the main Vatican administrative building at the back of St. Peter's Basilica that houses offices and apartments for senior members of the Curia and visiting dignitaries. He was en route to his study when another bomb exploded next to the building. it blew in all the windows, caused extensive structural damage, and destroyed his study. There were, he recorded, "no human victims. But one could have been me if I had reached my study."3

At the same time Bernardino Nogara and his wife, Ester, were having dinner in another part of the same building. Nogara was a member of the board of directors of Banca Commerciale Italiana, Italy's largest private bank, and the papal delegate responsible for running the Amministrazione Speciale per la Santa Sede, the Vatican City state treasury.4 Because Vatican buildings were unheated throughout the war, Norgara and his wife, in an effort to keep warm, had taken to living in one small room at the rear of their immense apartment in the Governorate. As a consequence, they escaped the worst effects of the blast. But they heard two women screaming and raced to the service area of their apartment. As Ester recorded in a letter to her granddaughter, "arriving at the laundry area, I saw two legs quivering under a bed: they were those of the maid . . . I did not know if she was carried under there by the blast or if she herself took refuge there." As Bernardino helped the woman out, "with great care because the room was full of glass and pieces of doors and windows," Ester served them cognac to help steady their nerves. She then went to inspect the damage to the rest of the apartment. On seeing the blown-in windows, demolished doors, and walls of which there was left "not even a trace," and the amount of glass and debris strewn across what had been her elegant apartment, Ester herself began to tremble, "and even I had to have a finger of cognac."5

Five bombs were dropped on the Vatican that evening. The first exploded outside the palace of Cardinal Nicola Canali, president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City. This was the bomb that shook, but did not damage, the Santa Marta building. The full force was taken instead by the palace, where windows, shutters, and doors were blown in and the interior sheered by splinters of flying glass and debris. But the sturdy structure of the building itself remained intact, save for pockmarks along its masonry caused by shrapnel. The second bomb hit the roof of the Mosaic Studio (see figure 2), which also housed the conservation laboratory, and which was located half-way between St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican railway station. Here the damage was considerable. The roof and walls came crashing down, and rows of steel cabinets that contained an irreplaceable collection of various shades and gradations of petrified glass-the tesserae used to create and repair religious mosaics-were blown to smithereens. …

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